Uncovered: 100 Years of Electricity History

You might have noticed that this issue’s cover deviates a bit from Electric Light & Power ‘s typical covers. This year PennWell Corp., the magazine’s owner, turns 100 and the company encouraged its 45 magazines to commemorate the centennial with a 100th anniversary cover. That sounds like a simple, straightforward request, but when we started working on an idea, it was far from simple.

We thought we’d do a little research back 100 years, then compare and contrast the industry: then vs. now. Because this issue contains a utility CEO roundtable about the Obama administration’s energy policy during its first year, we thought we’d compare William Taft’s energy policy–he was the U.S. president in 1910–to President Barack Obama’s. But Taft, we found, had no real energy policy.

The electric utility industry, which evolved from the gas and electric carbon-arc commercial and street lighting system, began around 1880 when Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street power station started generating electricity in lower Manhattan. Its main purpose was to provide power for one of Edison’s most famous inventions: the lightbulb. That first station provided electricity to 59 customers. But the industry was slow to grow. In 1910 less than 2 percent of the U.S. was electrified, which explains why Taft had no energy policy.

Although the Pearl Street power station doesn’t resemble today’s power plants much, I discovered a couple of similarities: Pearl Street was a central generating station, and it was fueled by coal. In addition, a distribution system, albeit quite short, carried electricity from the power plant to end users’ homes and businesses. The electricity industry operated much the same 100 years ago as it does today. That comes up often in our conversations about the evolving electricity industry.

Another similarity exits in the transportation sector. Although the technology has changed a lot in 100 years, electric cars were vying for public acceptance when Taft moved into the White House in 1909, much the way they are vying today. Back then, the general public preferred cars with combustion engines over electric cars, as they do today.

Taft was the first president to own and drive a car. He actually owned three and added a garage to the White House. One of his cars was a Baker Electric; the other two were gasoline-powered. It’s reported that the electric car’s top speed was 14 mph. And, according to my uncovered sources, Taft’s wife mainly drove the electric one. Taft, himself, stood more than 6-foot-2 inches tall and 300 pounds. To be politically correct, the electric car’s power was limited. Whatever the reason, Taft’s electric car seemed more of a novelty than it was serious transportation.

After 100 years, Obama and his administration are trying to transform the electric car from novelty to serious transportation. They’re pushing to get 1 million electric cars on the nation’s highways by 2015. I’m not sure what percentage of Americans owned electric vehicles in 1910, but I suspect it probably was more than today. Back then, the electric car lost out to the combustion engine.

Obama owns a hybrid Ford Escape, the closest thing to an electric car that’s occupied the White House garage since 1910. I wonder if the current push to transform the nation’s passenger vehicles to electric vehicles will work, or if it will be another 100 years before the White House welcomes its next electric car? Maybe a PennWell editor will pen that editorial for our bicentennial.

photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

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